Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Simple Dreadful Truth

"Life and death," whispered Titty.

"It really is," said Dorothea. "Even now the foul murderers are stealing towards their helpless victims. And that beast'll take the eggs and Dick will wish all his life he'd never found them." Dorothea began with a sentence in her favourite style but ended with the simple dreadful truth.

(Arthur Ransome, Great Northern?)

This passage from the climax of Ransome's Great Northern? perfectly captures (in the last pages of the final book of the series) what makes Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books such wonderful reading. The children who are the books' main characters imagine adventure stories (here, Dorothea's "favourite style") around their experiences, and yet those experiences themselves are adventures, "the simple dreadful truth," in no need of the embellishment of style. In fact, the two most exciting books in the series (at least as far as Miles and I are concerned) are We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea and Great Northern?, the books in which the experiences are so exciting that the children do not need to embellish them with fantasy at all.

But the contrast between a "favourite style" and "the simple dreadful truth" is more than just a self-reflexive comment on Ransome's part; it also symbolizes two different approaches to literature, one in which the purpose of literature is style (not only adventure stories, but adventure stories told in a particular way), the other in which the purpose of literature is to get at "simple dreadful truths" (even when the author is making things up).


Matt Merritt said...

They are wonderful books, aren't they? I keep meaning to go looking for some secondhand copies to re-read. I will now (or this weekend, at least)

Dominic Rivron said...

One of my favourite authors! I've written about him on my blog a few times (at most length, here).

I almost forgot the pinecones on the mantlepiece...